5. Uncle Kevin’s Book
Then, on my eighth birthday—when I desired only guns and train sets—someone dared give me a book. No gift could have been more disappointing and useless.
The perpetrator of this foul deed was Uncle Kevin, my father’s sister’s husband, who otherwise seemed a most reasonable and decent sort of person. Like Horrie, Uncle Kevin also drove a truck delivering bags only these bags were of the paper variety with the result that Uncle Kevin was altogether cleaner than Horrie, who seemed to live in a perpetual cloud of flour dust. He also liked movies, even westerns, although he also liked other sorts of movies, the existence of which I was only faintly becoming aware.
“Ah, that Humphrey Bogart,” Uncle Kevin would enthuse. “Boy is he tough. Only a little bugger, y’know, but he always looks bigger than he really is. Mean and tough as George Raft, that’s how tough.”
Or... “You ain’t seen a woman til yer seen Marilyn Monroe, kid. She’s got all the best bits of every woman ever, and none of the crankiness. She sure is somethin’.”
These people I could only marvel at, but since they never appeared in any westerns that I knew of, I had never actually seen them. (In fact they did, but in all cases best forgotten). Uncle Kevin was a cheery man, constantly laughing and smiling; quite unlike the stern figures I had discovered all other adults to be. Horrie seemed to alternate between a certain jovial raucousness and sullen exhaustion and my mother, of course, was never happy about anything. But Uncle Kevin, with his shining cherub cheeks and dancing eyes and hair always slicked perfectly into place, had a face fixed in a permanent grin and didn’t seem to know how to get in a bad mood.
And Uncle Kevin was as good as his word. When one evening he discovered The Maltese Falcon was showing in some theatre across town, he arrived with the express purpose of collecting me for my first Humphrey Bogart experience. My mother’s protestations were powerless against his smiling charm. So away I was whisked into the night and the seedy world of Hammett and Huston.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: (Mary Astor) He has a wife and three children in England.
Sam Spade: (Humphrey Bogart) As they usually do, though not always in England.
Now this is a movie that I have seen and loved so many times that I know every scene and line of dialogue by heart, and if you put it on TV tonight there is no prospect of real life—no woman sexy enough nor anticipated event sufficiently exhilarating—that would prevent me from getting home in time to watch it. I think it a rare perfect movie.
Brigid O’Shaughnessy: You won’t get into any trouble, will you?
Sam Spade: I don’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble.
I know the movie so intimately that it is impossible to say just exactly what I recall of that first Uncle Kevin experience—in fact there is evidence to suggest that it was not even that particular Bogart movie that we saw. My doubt arises because what did stick from that first expedition was Peter Lorre, who oddly would become my personal all-time favourite movie star. Why I chose him when there were so many greater and more beautiful possibilities available I leave to the psychiatric profession, but it just doesn’t seem likely that his role of weedy, effeminate Joe Cairo was likely to have had such an effect.
Sam Spade: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!
Be that as it may, The Maltese Falcon deserves the distinction and since there is no way that my memory will ever allow the truth to be known, I’ll stick with that initial impression.
Kasper Gutman: Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, but I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. Well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.
There sure is, right down to the marvellous long speech at the climax.
“Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more and then we’ll give up. Listen. When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organisation gets killed it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it. It’s bad all round—bad for that one organisation, bad for every detective everywhere. Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run down criminals and then let them free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing. The only way I could have let you go was by letting Gutman and Cairo and the kid go. That’s...
“Wait till I’m through and then you can talk. Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve got no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you want to. That’s five of them. The sixth would be that, since I’ve also got something on you, I couldn’t ever be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day. Seventh, I don’t even like the idea of thinking that there might be one chance in a hundred that you played me for a sucker. And eighth—but that’s enough. All those to one side. Maybe some of them are unimportant. I won’t argue about that. But look at the number of them. Now, on the other side we’ve got what? All we’ve got is the fact that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.”
It’s really hard to read it without imagining Humphrey Bogart gabbling it out; the role of Sam Spade seems written for Bogart, but in fact he was a child when Dashiel Hammett wrote the book and a teenager when the first of two previous versions of the work was filmed. It is living proof that remakes are not always inferior to originals.
And if all that wasn’t enough, there is the intentional misquotation of Shakespeare that is the last line.
Detective Tom Polhaus (Ward Bond) What is this?
Sam Spade The, uh, the stuff that dreams are made of.
Only a film script writer would dare offer such an outrage—the line is in the movie but it’s not in the book.